The Gender of God
The story of creation at the beginning of Genesis is an occasion to reflect on general questions in the Torah and even the Bible as a whole, including the Bible’s understanding of God’s gender.
God as Above Gender
Some biblical scholars suggest that YHWH is above gender, because YHWH is so fundamentally different from humans that it is inappropriate to use any human terminology of God. This was voiced frequently in medieval Jewish philosophy, and as a result this viewpoint is influential today. It is most closely associated with Maimonides and his theory of negative attributes or apopathic theology that suggests that we may only describe God in terms of what God is not.
This perspective resonates strongly in modern theology. One of the most influential books in the history or theory of religion is The Idea of the Holy, by Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), a German Lutheran philosopher and theologian, best known for his development of the concept of “the numinous” within the field of comparative religious studies. Otto defines holiness, the intrinsic feature of God, as “the wholly other.”
Otto’s influence has been far-reaching. For example, Brevard Childs (1923-2007), one of the major biblical scholars in the second half of the twentieth century, who taught at Yale University and Yale Divinity School for several decades, claimed:
The major thrust of the entire biblical witness is in portraying the God of Israel as different in kind from his creation, which he brings into being and sustains by grace. … He watches over Israel without slumber…. God … [is] worshipped in the conventions of a language which believers have always understood as inadequate for rendering the full divine reality.
This is an assertion, not an argument; the Bible often, and in many different ways, depicts God in very human terms. Indeed, although some biblical texts decry the notion that God sleeps, others suggest that God slumbers, and like a human needs to be awakened into activity. This is especially evident in Psalm 44:24:
עוּרָה לָמָּה תִישַׁן אֲדֹנָי הָקִיצָה אַל תִּזְנַח לָנֶצַח.
Rouse Yourself; why do You sleep, O Lord? Awaken, do not reject us forever!
Nothing, other than (some ancient Greek and) medieval and modern assumptions about deities being fundamentally different than humans and the assumption that all biblical texts must speak with one voice, would suggest that this is anything but literal!
Many biblical texts imply that YHWH has a body, but what kind of body is it? Is God male, female, or neither? Before exploring this issue, it is important to explain the important distinction made in the academy over the last decades between two terms: “sex” and “gender.”
Sex versus Gender
Sex is a biological term—based on an individual’s genitalia and chromosomes, a person is either male or female. Of course, determining sex is complicated in cases where sexual features are inconsistent, or when genetics and physical features do not match.
Rabbinic texts recognize that there are more than two sexes in their use of terms such as androgynous and tumtum, but the Bible never does, assuming instead a dichotomous world of males and females.
Gender, in contrast, is a social construct—it refers to masculinity or femininity, and refers to a role that an individual enacts or performs. As we know from our travels, readings, and from National Geographic, different societies have different notions or of how to enact these roles. And different societies have different expectations of the extent to which males need to behave in a masculine fashion, and females in a feminine one.
It is clear that the Bible had such expectations as well. In 1 Kings 2:2, the dying David can tell his son Solomon,
וְחָזַקְתָּ וְהָיִיתָ לְאִישׁ
Be strong, and show yourself a man
Thus, David’s advice highlights how gender is enacted. The same idea is conveyed by the LXX’s translation of Moses’ instruction to Joshua to “be strong and valiant” (חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ; Deut 31:7) as “be a man and valiant” (ἀνδρίζου καὶ ἴσχυε).
The prohibition of crossdressing (Deut 22:5) shows Deuteronomy’s concern to maintain “proper” gender boundaries:
לֹא יִהְיֶ֤ה כְלִי גֶ֙בֶר֙ עַל אִשָּׁ֔ה וְלֹא יִלְבַּ֥שׁ גֶּ֖בֶר שִׂמְלַ֣ת אִשָּׁ֑ה כִּ֧י תוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְ-הוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ כָּל עֹ֥שֵׂה אֵֽלֶּה׃
A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to YHWH your God.
This shows that some in ancient Israel felt significant anxiety about keeping gender roles “straight.” This is also likely reflected in the biblical prohibition against male-male anal intercourse in Lev 18:22 and 20:13, which states that a man may not lie with another man מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה, “as one lies with a woman.” Males should act and be treated like men.
Given the difference between (biological) sex and (social) gender, it would seem that we actually need to ask two questions:
- Was YHWH understood as male or female (or neither—or some combination of these)?
- Was YHWH understood as masculine or feminine (or neither—or some combination of these)?
However, because in ancient Israel, as I just noted, men were expected to be masculine, and women were expected to be feminine, issues of masculinity and maleness and of femininity and femaleness may, to a large extent, be conflated.
God as a Man
The Bible often uses explicit male imagery to describe God. For example, the Song of the Sea declares (Exod 15:3):
יְ-הוָה אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה יְ-הוָה שְׁמוֹ.
YHWH is a man of war; YHWH is his name.
Similarly, God is explicitly called a king in many biblical verses:
ישיעהו מד:ו כֹּה אָמַר יְ-הוָה מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְגֹאֲלוֹ יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת...
Isa 44:6 Thus said YHWH, the King of Israel, Their Redeemer, YHWH of Hosts
תהלים כד:י מִי הוּא זֶה מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד יְ-הוָה צְבָאוֹת הוּא מֶלֶךְ הַכָּבוֹד סֶלָה.
Ps 24:10 Who is the King of glory? – YHWH of hosts, He is the King of glory! Selah.
Other biblical texts have more subtle ways of expressing God’s maleness.
The Implications of Grammatical Gender
As a Semitic language, Hebrew verbs are typically conjugated with respect to gender, and Hebrew nouns all have masculine or feminine grammatical gender, which, where relevant, are matched with the appropriately gendered verb or adjective. Thus, by looking or listening, it is clear whether “you (singular) wrote” refers to a male or a female writer; the former would be כָּתַבְתָּ (katavta), while the latter would be כָּתַבְתְּ and (katavt). A female cow is automatically distinguished from its male counterpart—she is a פָּרָה (parah) rather than a פַּר (par), and will be modified by adjectives marked as feminine (e.g. שְׁמֵנָה, “fat”).
Unlike, e.g., German or Greek, Hebrew has no grammatical neuter gender, so all items must have a grammatical gender of masculine or feminine. Thus, every item must be assigned either a masculine or feminine grammatical gender—and the particular assignment often seems arbitrary to us. Thus, for reasons we can no longer understand, a table, שֻׁלְחָן (shulkhan) is masculine, while a bow, קֶשֶׁת (qeshet) is feminine.
Within this framework, YHWH in the Bible is masculine. Most scholars believe that this is irrelevant, claiming, e.g.:
The grammatical forms for God are masculine and the representations of God are mostly masculine. Although God does use a comparison to a woman in childbirth (Isa 42:14), nonetheless there is a strong scholarly consensus that God is regarded as nonsexual. “If sex must be applied to Israel’s deity, it would be monosex, and this is either an incompleteness or a contradiction in terms.”
In other words, most scholars suggest that the fact that God is grammatically masculine has no more bearing on the actual gender of God than the fact that table is masculine meant that ancient Israelites viewed tables as masculine and bows as feminine.
Recent linguistic studies, however, show that this is incorrect; grammatical gender does spill over to understandings of real gender. The same object—let’s say a table, may be marked as masculine and feminine in different languages. And depending on the language you speak, you will then view tables as either more masculine or feminine!
Thus, it is far from trivial that when YHWH was referred to in the Bible, YHWH always governs a masculine verb and is described by a masculine adjective. This grammatical fact derives from a view of YHWH as masculine, and would have reinforced that view.
The God of the First Creation Story
This masculine view of God as king, which we saw explicitly stated in Isaiah and Psalms, is implied throughout the first creation story, in Gen 1:1-2:4a. The Bible does nothing there to suggest that the powerful deity who is the protagonist of the story, of whom the story uses masculine grammatical forms, is anything other than masculine and male—as would be expected of any powerful creator deity in the ancient Near Eastern world. In fact, two details suggest that the protagonist is male.
This story narrates God’s massive building project, the creation of the world. In the ANE, kings are in charge of significant building projects, and this story which imagines God creating the world is thus a sub-metaphor of the larger metaphor God is king—and thus male. This would have been obvious to the ancient reader, familiar with the king and his roles. Furthermore, Gen 1:26, נַֽעֲשֶׂה אָדָם, “let us make human,” refers to God as king consulting the members of his royal court—as only kings (but not queens) might. That this text depicts God as king consulting with his royal counselors is implicit in a midrash in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b)
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: בשעה שבקש הקדוש ברוך הוא לבראות את האדם, ברא כת אחת של מלאכי השרת, אמר להם: רצונכם, נעשה אדם בצלמנו?...
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “When the Holy One, blessed be he, decided to create humanity, he [first] created a group of ministering angels and said to them: ‘Do you wish for us to make humanity in our image?’…”
Thus, this phrase as well, coming toward the end of the unit, makes it very clear that the story’s main image is of God as king—and thus as male (and masculine).
An Androgynous God?
It would seem that the immediately following verse contradicts this point. Genesis 1:27 reads:
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
God created person in His image; in the image of God did He create him/it male and female did he create them.
For many readers, this verse suggests that God is male and/or female since people, who are male and female, are created in God’s image. This interpretation is possible, but far from certain. Genesis 1:27 is an unusual poetic verse in the Bible. The basic structure of biblical poetry is the two-part verse (bicolon) where the halves parallel each other. Well over 95% of Hebrew poetic verses have this structure—and in it, the two verse-parts are tightly connected (or parallel). Gen 1:27, on the other hand, is an infrequent biblical tricolon, and in tricola all three verse parts need not be tightly connected. Thus, some tricola may be read as a bicolon plus an additional thought. If this is so here, then the verse may be read as:
God created person in His image = in the image of God did He create him/it;
and, in addition, male and female did he create them.
This verse would then have no bearing on God’s gender or sex. Given what we know of the structure of biblical poetry, such a reading is certainly possible, and therefore this verse may not be used to prove that God is both male and female. Thus, the constant reference to God using masculine grammatical forms, and the depiction of God as king in the chapter, suggest that this deity was viewed as male and masculine.
God the Father in the Second Creation Story
But what of the second creation story, focusing on the Garden of Eden? This story does not contain as clear images as the first story of YHWH as male, though as in the rest of the Bible, it uses masculine pronouns of YHWH God. The immediate aftermath of the Garden story, however, a continuation of the J narrative, explicitly identifies YHWH as male and masculine, indeed, as a father. Gen 4:1 describes Eve’s conception of Cain. His Hebrew name is etymologized in the text:
קָנִ֥יתִי אִ֖ישׁ אֶת יְ-הוָֽה
I have created a child with YHWH.
One recent scholar reads the verse as suggesting that Yahweh is the father of Cain. It is hard to be more masculine and male than that!
God the Mother in the Haftarah of Bereshit
The haftarah or prophetic reading is typically thematically related to the Torah reading in a variety of ways. The reading for Genesis, from Isaiah 42:5-43:10 is likely chosen for its opening words, which recall the first creation story; indeed, the anonymous prophet we call Deutero-Isaiah often cites and polemicizes against certain aspects of the Priestly creation story in Gen 1:1-2:4a. It should not be surprising that he deviates as well here, and in other places, from the male and masculine depictions of God that typify the rest of the Bible.Isaiah 42:14 explicitly depicts God as female—as a woman giving birth:
הֶחֱשֵׁ֙יתִי֙ מֵֽעוֹלָ֔ם אַחֲרִ֖ישׁ אֶתְאַפָּ֑ק כַּיּוֹלֵדָ֣ה אֶפְעֶ֔ה אֶשֹּׁ֥ם וְאֶשְׁאַ֖ף יָֽחַד׃
“I have kept silent far too long, Kept still and restrained Myself; Now I will scream like a woman in labor, I will pant and I will gasp.
God is depicted, in part, as a panting woman in labor, whose breath has such force that it can wreak havoc on the world (Isa 42:15):
אַחֲרִ֤יב הָרִים֙ וּגְבָע֔וֹת וְכָל־עֶשְׂבָּ֖ם אוֹבִ֑ישׁ וְשַׂמְתִּ֤י נְהָרוֹת֙ לָֽאִיִּ֔ים וַאֲגַמִּ֖ים אוֹבִֽישׁ׃
Hills and heights will I scorch, Cause all their green to wither; I will turn rivers into isles, And dry the marshes up.
This is one of several passages, all in Isaiah 40-66, which imagine God as a woman. The anonymous prophet(s) of Isaiah 40-66, living in and beyond the Babylonian exile, created, to use the formula of the first George Bush, a “kinder, gentler” God, and thus sometimes depicted that God as a woman. These motherly images of God certainly complicate our picture of the gender of God in the Bible!
So What Is God’s Gender in the Bible?
Two major contributions of critical biblical scholarship are:
- Recognizing the Bible as an ANE document; and
- Recognizing that the Bible is composite and speaks in many voices.
Both of these contributions are crucial for understanding the gender of God in the Bible. In the biblical period God was not viewed as “wholly other,” but as largely human—better than most people, larger than most people—but humanish. This is why the Bible is full of anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms, such as that found in the opening of the Noah story:
בראשית ו:ו וַיִּנָּחֶם יְ-הוָה כִּי עָשָׂה אֶת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּב אֶל לִבּוֹ.
Gen 6:6 And YHWH regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened.
These are not, as some post-biblical philosophers would suggest, concessions – this was how God was actually viewed.Within this conceptual structure, most saw this male God as a man with manly habits, while some exceptions existed on the fringes. But we should not conflate or flatten all biblical texts, and conclude that the biblical God was beyond gender or of dual gender, but instead recognize that the Bible speaks with multiple voices and holds differing conceptions of God.
The Bible and Politics
These thoughts are an attempt to outline what the Bible, in its original context, thought about God. As a scholar this is my primary interest, and I do not believe that this is a futile venture—though I am never positive that I am correct. As both a scholar and as a Jew, however, I recognize that the Bible interpreted has been central to Jewish tradition, and that often what it means in a later period is not identical to what it once meant.
To me, this is part of the beauty of the Bible within Judaism—the manner in which, through interpretation, it takes on ever-new meanings, remaining ever-relevant. But it is crucial for scholarship to recognize the difference, and frequently the distance, between means and meant—and, for those of us who are both scholars and committed Jews, between meant and what I wish it meant.
Speaking for myself, I wish the Bible depicted YHWH as gender-neutral, gender inclusive or genderless. But from my perspective as a scholar, this simply is not so, so I must search other avenues—within and outside of Judaism—to support my views, without misrepresenting what the Torah and the larger Bible meant.
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October 10, 2017
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.
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